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In Putin’s Russia, health care workers treating COVID-19 pay a deadly price

Russia has announced nearly 10,000 new COVID-19 infections in just the last day, bringing its national total close to 300,000. Half of the cases are in Moscow, where health care workers say protective gear and training for how to treat the disease are lacking. Meanwhile, there are questions about why Russia's official virus deaths are relatively low. Special correspondent Julia Chapman reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the last day, Russia has announced nearly 10,000 new COVID-19 infections.

    The virus is now marching across Russia's 11 time zones, with almost 300,000 infections nationwide. Only the United States has more.

    Half of their infections are in badly-afflicted Moscow.

    And it is from there that special correspondent Julia Chapman reports.

  • Julia Chapman:

    At a hospital outside Moscow, protective gear is washed for reuse. And many of the doctors here believe they, too, have been hung out to dry.

    These suits are only intended to be used once, but medical workers across Russia are facing shortages of personal protective equipment. And as they treat the most seriously ill patients, their lives are also being put at risk.

    Radiologist Ksenia Menshikova says her hospital was underprepared and staff were underprotected. While the authorities have addressed some of her concerns, she says employees remain exposed. So she's set up a legal help line for her colleagues.

  • Ksenia Menshikova (through translator):

    When Russia's main coronavirus hospital had already been open for around a month, and everyone understood that an epidemic was approaching, our hospital was completely unprepared in almost every way.

    When the first suspected coronavirus patient arrived, we barely had enough masks.

  • Julia Chapman:

    Dr. Margarita Lapshina and her colleagues work in a maternity hospital, usually treating newborns. When it was converted into a coronavirus center, there was no preparation for what was to come.

  • Margarita Lapshina (through translator):

    We didn't get any instructions. So there was no organization inside the institution how to admit patients, which forms to fill out, how to evaluate their condition. We had to learn on the job.

  • Julia Chapman:

    Even in wealthy St. Petersburg, five patients died in an ICU at St. George's hospital, when a ventilator caught fire. And doctors in the city who contract coronavirus are being investigated.

    A commission will judge whether they took sufficient precautions to avoid infection.

    But, every day, medical workers take huge risks to treat patients with COVID-19, and many of them are losing their lives. They have started a list of their colleagues who have died from coronavirus. It's more than 240 names' long.

    Two of them were medical workers who reportedly died after falling from windows in suspected suicides. After weeks of restrictions, there are signs that Russia's infection rate is beginning to slow.

    President Vladimir Putin has declared that it's time to start getting back to work.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    The non-working period for the entire country and all branches of the economy is coming to an end.

    But the fight against the epidemic continues. The danger remains even in those territories where the situation is relatively good and where new cases are in the single digits.

  • Julia Chapman:

    Certain industries will reopen if local authorities say it's safe. And employers are required to test their workers regularly.

    In the capital, some 200,000 construction and industrial workers have returned to their jobs. But many doctors say they fear another surge. More than a quarter-of-a-million Russians have already been diagnosed.

    Russian officials say the number of cases is so high because of widespread testing. More than six million tests have been carried out for coronavirus. Only the U.S. has done more.

    But Moscow's mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, says the infection rate in the capital is likely three times higher than the official figure. Authorities admit that swab tests are producing false negatives, but they blame the nature of the virus , rather than the quality of tests.

  • Oleg Itskov (through translator):

    We work with a very sensitive testing system. If you haven't correctly taken the sample, if you touched it with your tongue, if something went wrong before the analysis, before it came to the lab, then the system won't be able to detect the virus, even the best test system in the world.

  • Julia Chapman:

    While Russia's coronavirus figures have soared, one number has remained low. Confirmed deaths from the virus account for fewer than 1 percent of cases. In the U.S., that number is nearly 6 percent.

    Officials say the widespread testing is helping Russia protect vulnerable groups who are more likely to be killed by the virus. And they say their early border closures and strict lockdowns kept the death rate low. But statisticians say the number can partly be explained by the way Russia classifies the cause of death. Many people are recorded as dying with coronavirus, not because of it, so their deaths are not added to the overall total.

  • Alexey Raksha:

    You should multiply it by several times to get the true picture. So, nobody knows the actual count. You should use only the overall death rate and compare it to the previous year. So, this is the only good way to estimate the severity of this pandemic.

  • Julia Chapman:

    Preliminary figures in Moscow suggest a 20 percent rise in April deaths compared with the 10-year average. Only around half of those were attributed to COVID-19.

    Russians are all too familiar with heavy casualties. On May 9, they marked Victory Day, commemorating the defeat of the Nazis. It's a day when the whole country would normally be on the streets celebrating and remembering the millions lost.

    But no tanks rolled into Red Square. No veterans gathered to be honored. Only the rumble of helicopters in formation marked the day from any other.

    Moscow's mayor urged people to watch the flyover from home. But some couldn't resist getting a better view.

  • Man (through translator):

    In every family, somebody fought. So we remember them, because we're here breathing this air. We're still living in peace. Yes, there are problems. A new enemy has arrived. But we came here to give a salute and watch the flyover.

  • Julia Chapman:

    Others who tried to mark the occasion were arrested, accused of breaking self-isolation orders.

    Russia is no stranger to service and sacrifice. As the country confronts its greatest challenge in decades, President Putin is facing falling trust figures. And after 20 years in power, his fate and Russia's are intertwined.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Julia Chapman in Moscow.

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